Well, that’s not very Christmas-y, I thought, looking at the photo I was considering for my holiday blog. And yet, something was telling me that this image was, in fact, the one with a timely message for the season. That I needed to press in and see what materialized.
First off, I noticed how tightly the two hamsters were squished into the strawberry together. Although their positioning looked uncomfortable to me, it seemed ideal for them. The larger of the two hamsters, the one with the lighter coloring, even had his eyes closed, as if he had finally settled down for some sleep. Although his darker companion remained open-eyed, he, too, looked perfectly contented. His companion’s long whiskers were even brushing his face—a form of touch that did not appear to trouble him in the least.
As much as I love my family, there’s no way I could tolerate that kind of close contact for very long. Though I cherished being pregnant with my son years ago, there came a time when he grew so large and active that I became eager for his exit from my body. When my husband and I occasionally hold hands while sitting in church, we do let go and move them back after a while. Having grown up in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, I was taught to greet people with a kiss on the cheek —a far cry from the distanced hand-shake that is customary in New England. And yet, those kisses were always short and sweet, never prolonged. If you think of it, Jesus was betrayed with a kiss. Physical contact can mean almost anything, depending on the context.
And what is the context here? Two small animals sheltering in a make-believe, over-sized fruit. In the wild, nothing like that could possibly happen. I imagine each hamster would be running for its life as soon as a hawk or some other predator glimpsed the pair sticking out from their hidey-hole.
It was just after Christmas a decade ago when I had my first sighting of my son. There he was on live ultrasound, five weeks old, heartbeat but a faint flutter before my eyes. As soon as I saw that flutter, the axis of my whole world tilted, and I began to spin in a different direction. I cannot fully describe it, except to say that something inside me trembled, knowing that life was no longer going to be about taking care of myself and my husband. Now we would both be orbiting around this child, and we would not always succeed as his caregivers. Would we prove ourselves up to the challenge? Only time would tell (and it is still “telling”).
When I think of first sightings of offspring in the Christmas story (as Luke tells it in chapters 1–2 of his gospel), three main people come into view: the priest Zacharias, his wife Elizabeth—both old fogies—and young Mary, who, like them, was slated to receive some mind-boggling news. When we meet them, Zacharias and Elizabeth have been childless for decades, through no fault of their own. Luke assures us that they are “righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly…” (Luke 1:6).
When Zacharias finds himself face-to-face with Gabriel, messenger of the Most High, he responds to angel’s news of Elizabeth’s impending pregnancy as any man might, after so many years of resounding disappointment. The King James version captures the moment quite compellingly:
And Zacharias said unto the angel, “Whereby shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife well stricken in years.”
(Lk. 1:18 KJV)
In response, Gabriel renders Zacharias mute for the entire length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God…” the angel’s reprimand begins, letting the reader know that how one responds during an intimate, face-to-face encounter is of paramount importance. In other words, you don’t disparage close encounters of the holy kind.
Notably, Elizabeth’s response to the pregnancy prophecy is to hide herself away for five months, quietly rejoicing that God has finally taken away her disgrace as a barren woman (Luke 1:25). By the time she was ready to come out of her strawberry and show herself to the world, her condition would be plain to any numbskull with eyes. To me, she seems as if she has been carefully wrapping a gift, so that others can partake of the joy of unwrapping it alongside her. The miracle—and God’s goodness—will be visible to all.
And then there is Mary, for whom the stakes loom the highest. Not only is her prophecy chock full of hyperbole (e.g., “He will be called son of the Most High” and “His kingdom will have no end” [Lk. 1:31-32]), it involves an impossibility of the highest intimacy and order. Without sexual contact, she will conceive a baby. The one to impregnate her will be none other than God’s Holy Spirit, who will “come upon” her and “overshadow” her, such that her boy will be called none other than “the Son of God.”
Mary’s response contrasts quite dramatically from Zacharias’. “Please count me in!” is more or less the gist of it (Lk. 1:38). She does not ask for proof that Gabriel’s announcement—however contrary to the laws of nature—is true. Rather she immediately gives herself over to the enormity of it, letting it sweep her into a whole new world.
Then there is one, last, response to consider in this landscape of annunciations: that of the infant to be named John, still gestating in Elizabeth’s womb. When the old woman hears Mary’s voice eventually greet her, John leaps like a spring lamb in her belly. For her part, Elizabeth cries, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” (Lk. 1:45). Living with a husband who still cannot speak because of his unbelief, Elizabeth takes her baby’s summersault as a sure sign that Mary instead has gone full tilt and is now orbiting a miracle akin to her own. Little John lets his mom, Mary, and us readers, know that blessings become all the richer when we huddle in close to absorb them. As if to prove exactly this point, Mary joins her voice to Elizabeth’s and sings a beautiful hymn of praise that is now called “the Magnificat.”
There is one thing I never noticed before in the countless times I have engaged this story at Christmastime. The families’ annunciations are not exactly equal. Yes, Gabriel is the appointed messenger in each case, but in Elizabeth’s situation, he is sent to her husband, not to her, with the news. The text does not tell us why, only noting that Zacharias was performing his priestly duties when Gabriel appears. Nor are we readers privileged to a scene in which voiceless Zacharias somehow communicates his wife’s impending conception to her. The first time she speaks in the story, she’s already been convinced of her great fortune (Lk 1:25). The second time she speaks, she’s been convinced of Mary’s too (Lk. 1:42ff).
As for Mary, she receives her news directly from the mouth of Gabriel, and actually converses with him for a bit about it. Her inquiry centers upon the mechanics of her miracle, how a virgin like her can conceive. After all, she is not yet a married woman like Elizabeth, with a husband (however geriatric) to help her out. After explaining that it is the Holy Spirit himself who will fulfill the role of progenitor, Gabriel ties his two trips to earth together by letting Mary know about Elizabeth’s condition:
And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.
And just like that, Mary and Elizabeth are stuck in the same, supernatural strawberry. Gabriel’s good news to Mary is simply not complete until she is given someone to share it with, someone to believe it with, someone to rest in it with. Presumably, that is why Mary instantly makes the trip to see her aged relative, to simply revel in the cosmic goodness that is taking place in such a personal way for both of them.
As I walk through Advent this year, I cannot help but ask: is it not the same for us? We constantly talk about what the pandemic has taken away from us, emphasizing the isolation many of us found ourselves in through no fault of our own. Even the descriptive term “social distancing” took on a menacing feeling, as though we were being sequestered away like Elizabeth, but for supremely unhappy reasons.
Staring at those two hamsters, thinking of two women’s voices singing together against the backdrop of one old man’s silence, I wish for a little stirring in the belly myself. Just a whisker brushing my cheek. Something to tell me that life is on its way back this year and there will be incredible blessing both for the giving and for the taking.
This year, I want to get better at asking: how do I reach out? How can I routinely share some good thing, no matter how small, with another? Surely,I can find a way to acknowledge the blessing that has come my way, no matter how subtle its appearance. If Luke’s gospel is any indication, those little leaps of gratitude will add up to a mighty celebration, a life-giving gathering of souls encouraging each other on in their journeys, finding a soft place to land when needed.
Maybe you, like me, have grown a little out of practice when it comes to reaching out and nestling in over some good news. Nothing is too trivial if the intent behind sharing it is to minister encouragement and kindness. These are still in short supply, even though we may no longer be as “well stricken” with a deadly virus.
My good news? My autistic ten-year-old, who has severe language deficits, is talking more. Wanting to talk more, whereas before he remained content making his own sounds on his own terms. These days, I often overhear him speaking to the iPad, commenting on what he is seeing. He is also reading simple books with his father in the evenings. And sometimes he will come to me with either a book or tablet to ask that I label what he is looking at, so that we may enjoy his excitement over his discovery together.
Do I still wish he could talk like other children his age? That I could hold a real conversation with him? Of course. But let’s just say the subtle changes emerging in him are expanding my definition of what “real” communication might be.
What about you? What good thing has either remained or appeared as you have endured hardship? How can you share it with another, either through word or deed?
May God grant us all a safe space to inhabit as we press forward into 2023. And may we re-learn how to create those fruitful havens that may have been taken for granted before.
Divine Provider of all good purposes and plans, please count us in!
And please bless this season of remembering to hope again.